Right-wing radio personality and Fox News host Glenn Beck declared on his radio show that it would be a “well-orchestrated, well-monied, well-attended” event that would be bent on the “destruction of America,” and those attending wanted to take our nation and “give it to the Mexicans.”
The event, One Nation Working Together, took place Oct. 2 on the steps of Lincoln Memorial. I was there to cover it for The Daily Beast and to gain perspective on the lethargy among the Liberal, Progressive and Independent coalition that enthusiastically elected Barack Obama president two years ago but seems less than enthused for the mid-term elections.
There is a definite enthusiasm gap. September polls showed that voters who plan to actually vote this year tend to lean Republican, even though polls of all registered voters showed Democrats had a 42 percent favorable rating to the GOP’s 35 percent. The worry is that Democrats won’t show up at the polls in November, while the Republicans, who have been energized by the Tea Party movement, may come out in record numbers.
Friday night, before the One Nation rally, I talked with Matt Filipowicz, a progressive blogger, political cartoonist and comedian, about the gap.
“There is a definite lack of enthusiasm,” said Filipowicz over beers and crab cakes at Old Ebbitt Grill, the capitol’s oldest saloon. “It has sort of been like (from the Obama administration) ‘We promised change, you believed us?’”
Filipowicz said the hardcore progressives and liberals will vote in November, but they are upset that former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel blamed the progressives for the administration’s problems. Filipowicz and others point the finger at Emmanuel for pushing the White House to be more moderate. Filipowicz and others were worried about the attendance at One Nation.
“I hope there’s a good turnout tomorrow,” Filipowicz added.
The One Nation rally was planned as an alternative to the Restore America rally hosted at the same spot on Aug. 28 by Beck. The primary organizers were the labor unions and the NAACP, who announced it less than 60 days before the event. It wasn’t endorsed by the White House or the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. The only media coverage prior to the event was by Ed Schultz on MSNBC and his syndicated radio program.
There was a reason for Filipowicz and others to be worried, but fortunately for the organizers, the weather cooperated and the crowds came. I’ve read estimates from 80,000 to 250,000 people attended. I don’t know which number is accurate, but when I looked out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I saw a sea of people surrounding the reflection pool and extending back to the Washington Monument.
The crowd was as diverse as I’ve ever seen, each union and organization wearing different colored t-shirts and carrying their own unique posters. The first hour was an interfaith service with music, prayers, sermons and readings from the Bible and Quran.
Ed Schultz kicked off the speeches. “We are together. This march is about the power to the people. It is about the people standing up to the corporations. Are you ready to fight back?”
He ended it with, “This is a defining moment in America. Are you American?” The crowd shouted, “Yes!”
“Do you love this country?” Schultz shouted. Again the crowd yelled, “Yes.”
“This is no time to back down,” Schultz said. “This is time to fight for America.”
For the remaining four hours the crowd listened to Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, union leaders, civil rights leaders, out-of-work Americans, immigrants, veterans and Native Americans speak on justice, jobs and human rights issues. The theme was “We need to pull together, not be pulled apart.”
While standing at the Lincoln Memorial, I caught up with Lily Eskelsen, a Utah elementary teacher who is the vice president of the National Education Association (NEA). She was all smiles as we looked out at the throng listening to the speeches.
“We are accomplishing, even as we speak, an amazing coalition of 400-plus organizations that have brought people here,” Eskelsen said. “They get it. We are one nation and must work together.”
The NEA had 400 members at the One Nation rally and at least one member from each state. They were all wearing blue t-shirts. I asked her about the Republican Party and why she thought they didn’t “get” public education.
“I think even the staunchest conservative wants strong public schools,” said Eskelsen, who shared that most of her family is Republican. “The Republican voters are starting to ask why their leadership doesn’t support public schools. Instead they keep talking about privatizing it with charter schools and vouchers. They want to base pay on test scores.”
She said, “I taught at homeless shelters in Salt Lake City. Who wants to take my students, if (the teachers’) families might suffer because they took the most challenging students?”
She spoke about the NEA’s Priority School Campaign. “Priority Schools focuses on the schools that need us the most, those with the highest poverty rate,” she said. “Those children need us the most, the schools are everything for them. We say go into those schools and give those kids what they need.
“Republicans are telling us that’s a great idea, that’s where we need to be putting our greatest resources. The Republican leadership doesn’t get it. Instead they want to hand out a few vouchers. They don’t really want to turn those schools around.”
She added, “The voters should be asking the Republican leadership ‘What are you thinking? You should be investing in our public schools. That’s how you turn this country around.’”
When asked why these mid-term elections were so important, Eskelsen replied, “Every election is the most important election. But we’ve never faced such a negative political climate that has been attacking public schools, attacking the people who work in those public schools and attacking the people who represent the teachers and support staff. If the people who are attacking our public schools win, our children lose.
“That’s why we brought teachers from every state here to emphasize public schools are important in every community. Every family should care about who they elect to make these decisions.”
Will the One Nation rally be enough to galvanize Eskelsen’s members and those of the other organizations there? We will know the evening of Nov. 2 after the polls are closed.